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Surgeon fatigue may be hazardous to Maryland patients' health

There are a lot of articles on the prevalence of substance abuse among medical practitioners. Substance abuse among Maryland physicians is an important issue because of the serious nature of the services these professionals provide and the life-threatening possibilities associated with mistakes due to surgical errors.

While substance abuse is certainly a topic worthy of discussion, a recent article published in the Archives of Surgery turned the spotlight on another less-discussed patient hazard, fatigue. Maryland patients, like patients everywhere, need to be aware of this often-hidden but all-too-real hospital health hazard.

The study found that surgical residents observed functioned at less than 80 percent of their mental capacity about half of the time they were awake. The study monitored 27 surgical residents with instruments that measured mental fatigue. Although individuals fluctuated, fatigue was high.

The concern, of course, is that surgeons struggling with fatigue are more likely to commit surgical errors that could result in wrongful death or serious injury to patients. According to one physician who reviewed the study, the findings were not surprising. Surgeons, like other doctors, often work long hours, but at what cost?

The study, which found high rates of fatigue, did not look at the association between fatigue and surgical errors, but rather the heightened risk of error. In a 2009 study, however, a study conducted by an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University did demonstrate a correlation between fatigue among surgeons and surgical error; a finding that surprised few.

There are many reasons surgical errors happen, but few justify mistakes that result in harm or decreased patient care. Medical practitioners and the hospitals that employ them have an obligation to protect the safety of patients, even up to and including making sure doctors get a good nights rest.

Source: The Huffington Post, "Sleepy Surgeons: New Study Shines Light on Risks of Surgeon Fatigue," Catherine Pearson, May 21, 2012

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